Sunday, April 14, 2024

Detective stories

Did anyone else out there read "The Problem of Cell 13" by Jacques Futrelle?

I'm assuming I'm not the only one, as it was in the standard 6th-grade reading textbook my generic public school used in the early 1970's.

It was one of several early 1900's detective stories by Futrelle featuring his character Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen (AKA The Thinking Machine), a reserved, brilliant, scientist who solved problems solely by logic (kind of a 1905 Mr. Spock). Almost 100 years later Van Dusen also appeared in the comic book series "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

"The Problem of Cell 13" featured Van Dusen being voluntarily incarcerated in a high-security prison to prove that, by thinking, he could figure a way out and escape within a week - which he did. Probably Futrelle's most well-known story, it's since been adapted, both in whole and in part, several times for TV and radio. Most recently was in 2019 for an episode of the NBC TV series "The Blacklist."

For whatever reason it was a handful of stories I read growing up that I never forgot ("The Long Sheet" by William Sansom was another) and when the internet age dawned the story was long in the public domain and easy for me to find.

The writer, Jacques Futrelle started as a journalist. He began the sports section for the Atlanta Post, then was hired by the New York Herald where he covered the Spanish-American War. Afterwards he worked in Boston, then left journalism to become a full-time, and successful, detective writer.

His wife, Lily May Futrelle, was also a prominent author. She wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. Her first novel "The Secretary of Frivolous Affairs" was on the U.S. bestseller list from 1911 to 1915 and made into an early silent film (one of the first movies written by a woman).

Besides raising a son & daughter, and their separate writing careers, they collaborated on a Van Dusen story, "The Grinning God," in which she wrote the first half of the mystery to set the stage and he wrote the second half, with Van Dusen solving it.

They both did well as authors, allowing them to build a coastal home in Scituate, Massachusetts and enjoy the newfangled luxury of an automobile.

In early 1912 they left the kids with his parents and headed to Europe for 2-3 months to promote their books. The trip was successful, to the extent that they were given a complimentary first class suite by a shipping line for the journey home.



112 years ago tonight, the Futrelles stood together on the sloping decks of the Titanic.

Offered a chance to get in a lifeboat with her, he refused, and insisted the space be given to another woman.

After returning home, she wrote a 2-part piece on the disaster for the Boston Post, published on April 21-22:


"The last I saw of my husband he was standing beside Colonel Astor. He had a cigarette in his mouth. As I watched him, he lighted a match and held it in his cupped hands before his face. By its light I could see his eyes roam anxiously out over the water. Then he dropped his head toward his hands and lighted his cigarette. I saw Colonel Astor turn toward Jacques and a second later Jacques handed the colonel his cigarette box. The colonel screened Jacques' hands with his own, and their faces stood out together as the match flared at the cigarette tip. I know those hands never trembled. This was not an act of bravado. Both men must have realized that they must die."


His body was never recovered. He was 37.

Lily May never remarried. She raised their children, published her own novels, completed & published those Jacques hadn't, taught writing clinics, and hosted radio shows. In 1940 she spearheaded efforts to extend authors' copyrights for an additional 28 years, which was signed into law by President Roosevelt. She was given the pen that he used.

Every year, on the anniversary of the sinking, she walked from their home to the seafront to cast flowers in for Jacques.

She died in 1967.


Anonymous said...

“Acid acid acid!!!”

Great memories - loved that story. Thanks for the background. Wasn’t aware of any of this.

Emma said...

What an interesting, and sad, story. Dr. Grumpy, you should write a book too!

Chuck Pergiel said...

I remember that story, at least I think I do. I remember it being very annoying. His escape hinged on the thinnest of possibilities. His shirt was made with two layers of cloth. Who has shirts like that? Okay, it's possible that was the way someone was making shirts back then. Then sending a message tied to a rat that made its way down a drain to a river where his rat man caught it and acted on the message. Yes, it's possible, but not what you'd call reliable. Weird how it's been like 60 years since I read that story and the annoyance is still fresh in my mind.

Me said...

Wow, that would make quite a movie! Has anyone contacted Christopher Nolan?

fiberman said...

Remember when the story was written. At that time, men's dress shirts were starched so the fronts could pretty much stand up by themselves. The front got some added stiffness from an extra layer or two of fabric (the text actually mentions that stiff-fronted shirts of they type worn by The Thinking Machine always have three layers). He took some fabric from one of these extra layers.

Loren Pechtel said...

I will agree with the opinion that there were too many things that were a matter of chance. And he did not actually pull off a successful jailbreak. The way the story played out he got to make his appearance but remember that he "escaped" as an electrician--leaving one more electrician in the jail than there should be. If it were a real jailbreak that implicates the electricians as being involved.

Anonymous said...

Some writing leaves an indelible impression on one's brain, just as if one was right in the room where it happened. And, then, there are the young and impressionable with wild imaginations that can fill in all the details and more with the briefest of descriptions. Can't say I read that story, but if I run into it, I'll be seeing the author(s) in my mind.

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